Where individuals lack the capacity to make important decisions for themselves, their loved ones and professionals may disagree about what is best for them. A guideline case concerning the COVID-19 vaccination programme illustrated the vital role family judges play in breaking such impasses.
The case concerned a disabled young man who was resident in a care facility. There was no dispute that he lacked decision-making capacity. Professionals were of the view that he should be vaccinated against the virus. His parents, however, believed passionately that vaccination would not be in his best interests.
Ruling on the matter, a judge noted that the parents were highly intelligent, articulate and independently minded. Their objections were not driven by conspiracy theories. The mother, in particular, was concerned that vaccination would be hazardous for her very delicate son and might even kill him.
The court noted that the technologically new COVID-19 vaccine that it was proposed that the man should receive works in a different way from more traditional vaccines. In the emergency conditions of the pandemic, trials of the vaccine were truncated and approval accelerated. The court acknowledged that those were factors that gave cause for prolonged reflection.
On the other hand, the man’s condition placed him at particular risk from the virus. In the facility where he lived, he was alone in being unvaccinated. As a result, he had been unable to attend outdoor events and was required to isolate for up to 10 days following home visits. Vaccination would improve his quality of life and enable him to be more involved with activities at the facility and with his parents. The court found that, were he able to decide for himself, those would be magnetic factors for him.
Although it was a finely balanced case, the court found that the scales came down in favour of vaccination. It recognised that the parents would be distraught at the decision. Professionals who conducted the procedure were directed to carefully monitor for any side effects and keep the parents fully updated. The court did not authorise any form of restraint to be used in vaccinating the man.